4 November 2002 | howard.schumann
Riveting and Involving
In the opening scene of Wages of Fear (1953), director Georges Henri-Clouzot provides an inkling of the kind of claustrophobic ride we are in for. In a steamy, impoverished Latin American town called Las Piedras, insects grope clumsily in the dust, struggling to escape the strings that children have tied to them. People from all over the world congregate in the streets and bars and the air is thick with choking dust. Clouzot makes clear the desperation of the residents, "It's like prison," explains one of them. "Easy to get in, but escape is impossible." The Southern Oil Company (SOC - same initials as Standard Oil) runs the town and enjoys its profits while the villagers are compelled to work odd jobs just to stay alive. After a fire breaks out at one of the oil fields killing many workers, the anti-union American boss seeks experienced drivers from among the townspeople to put out the fire. It is here that the anti-American flavor runs thick and where much of this part of the film was originally excised for American audiences (but has since been restored).
Four men, desperate to escape their trap, agree to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine 300 miles over treacherous mountain roads in the hot sun for the sum of $2000 each. Transporting the nitroglycerine for them is a way out of hopelessness -- either through a big paycheck or through sudden death, with the latter appearing the more probable. Though sadly past the point in time when we can still be shocked over gangster capitalism and men selling out for money, the story is nonetheless compelling. The four who are chosen to go on this fool's errand include Mario, a young Corsican played by Yves Montand in a role that brought him widespread attention. He is carrying on an affair with a local servant girl, Linda (Vera Clouzot) who is in love with him. His treatment of her, however, is atrocious and reflects the attitude of the male-dominated society they live in. Also picked to drive one of the trucks is Jo, an aging Parisian small-time crook (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian with less than a year to live, and an ex-nazi pilot (Peter van Eyck). This unlikely group will play a cat-and-mouse game with death for the remainder of the film.
Clouzot depicts several incidents that bring the tension to the boiling point. In the first one, the trucks must travel at least 40 mph over a pot-holed stretch of road to prevent the vibrations from setting off the nitroglycerine. The second involves a sharp, narrow turn that requires the trucks to back up onto an unstable, rotten wooden platform causing it to buckle. Almost immediately afterwards, the trucks are stopped by a huge boulder in the middle of the road and must siphon off some of the nitroglycerine to blow it up. Finally, Mario must deftly maneuver the truck over a depression of spilled oil with the wheels stuck in reverse. As the long treacherous journey unfolds, roles are reversed between Mario and Jo as Mario becomes the strong dominant one and Jo, in Charles Vanel's brilliant performance, becomes shaken, fearful, and docile. Their relationship becomes the highlight of the film as the two become mutually dependent on each other for survival and comfort.
I found Wages of Fear to be an involving experience that kept me riveted throughout, though I did sense that there would not be a two and a half-hour film unless somebody survived. Although the unexpected plot twists were gripping, the best part of the film for me was the revelation of each character when faced with fear. It reminded me of the "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", a film that also showed men discovering the truth about themselves and others while pursuing their dream of wealth. Wages of Fear lived up to its accolades, but for me the discordant ending clashed both with the tone of the film and with my experience of the universe not as arbitrary or capricious but as filled with meaning and purpose.